Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Dance of Persons and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy / Thomas M. Norton-Smith -- Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010

In The Dance of Persons and Place Shawnee philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith brings his background in analytic philosophy to bear on the question of the legitimacy of the world view(s) of American Indians or at least as he understands them. The standard he uses for assessing the world view is based largely on the work of the American philosopher Nelson Goodman who argued against ontological objectivity in favor of multiple well-formed world versions.

Overall, the work is successful, but not without making a number of controversial commitments along the way. For example, Norton-Smith suggests that acceptable world versions might dispense with fundamental canons of reason. In place of these, Norton-Smith would put world-creating activities of the kind he argued for in his articles in the Philosophy of Mathematics. His views are well-argued and founded, in part, on his experiences crossing the boundaries from a "Western" philosophical background into the community of American Indians.

Originally skeptical of Goodman's views, Norton-Smith adopted an ontology along the lines of Goodman in the course of learning the Shawnee language, particularly as he noticed that the Shawnee language employed the same phonemes for all animate objects, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. Upon accepting a Goodmanesque view, Norton-Smith developed his understanding of American Indian philosophy. According to this understanding, there are four common themes in American Indian philosophy: "relatedness and circularity as world-ordering principles, the expansive conception of persons, and the semantic potency of performance."

While Norton-Smith is at pains to emphasize that his exposition of the American Indian World version is "an interpretation" -- suggesting that others are equally legitimate -- his treatment of the "Western" world version is perhaps insufficiently nuanced, allowing scientific realism to stand for all of "Western" culture. This misses the numerous other world versions coming out of Europe which included much that is antithetical to scientific realism, e.g., belief in spiritual beings and miracles. Indeed, these beliefs have been (and remain) more common in the U.S. than scientific realism and may have some things in common with the American Indian world view.

Norton-Smith's juxtaposition of American Indian philosophy and scientific realism makes one wonder if a more significant comparison might be made between the world views of literate versus non-literate peoples. The trappings of ethnocentric ontological legitimacy might find their roots in the products of written language as opposed to the narrower characteristics of science realism. In any case The Dance of Person and Place is an extremely valuable contribution to improving the cross-cultural exchange of ideas.

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